Nov 20, 2012

The Sea

Although his first feature Tras el cristal (1987) aka In a Glass Cage is his most idiosyncratically and artistically stylized and thematically terrorizing, Agustí Villaronga’s sixth film El Mar (2000) aka The Sea – based on a novel of the same named by Blai Bonet – is assuredly the Spanish auteur filmmaker’s most emotionally grating and draining, yet startlingly spiritual work as a sort of wicked fantasy/nefarious nightmare of the Spanish auteur come to life in celluloid form. Indubitably, the unofficial master of stark sadomasochistic coming-of-age films – the strikingly sordid sort that no impressionable children see lest they turn out like the emotionally broken children of the Spanish filmmaker's cinematic works – Villaronga opens El Mar with the introduction of five decisively damned grade school children who shed their innocence long before they can reach puberty or drive a car as they become secondary victims of the fratricidal terror and trauma of the Spanish Civil war. During the summer of 1936, the violence of the war finally hits a tiny village in Mallorca in a way that will touch the children for the remainder of their ill-fated lives. After four of the children – boys Andreu Ramallo, Manuel Tur, Pau Inglada and a girl Francisca – witness the execution of leftist revolutionaries by pro-Franco partisans, they decide to take revenge against Julià Ballester; the young son of one of the Nationalist executioners. Pau is especially possessed by a commanding sense of street justice as his father was one of the men that was executed, thus his personal vendetta against Julià runs blood deep and is of a wholly visceral and innately irrational nature. Originally planning to torture boy jerk-off Julià by forcing him to drink ungodly amounts of castor oil, things take a turn for the worst when the arrogant son-of-a-bitch mocks the fervent and fuming fatherless boy. Instead of merely lubing Julià’s vile vocal chords, Pau brutally bashes his archenemy’s brains against a boulder and mercilessly finishes him off by stabbing him repeatedly in the throat in a most malicious and and ultimately murderous manner. Totally unable to psychologically deal with what he has done at such a young age, poor Paul commits self-slaughter by jumping to his prepubescent death via a deep hole in the cave. Although Julià and Pau have perished into eternity, three collateral victims of war remain – Andreu Ramallo, Manuel Tur, and Francisca – all of whom deal with the tragedy in different, albeit similarly radical, ways.

Over a decade later, the three victims are brought together by happenstance which eventually results in the most unhappy and unfading of consequences, at least for the two males Ramallo and Manuel Tur. In the early stage of tuberculosis, Ramallo (Roger Casamayor) – now a cocky and cryptically-cock-sucking fellow – goes to a sanatorium in Mallorca to recuperate during the early stages of TB, thereupon randomly running into Manuel (David Lozano) and Francisca (Victoria Verger) who have already reunited through faith and circumstances. Clearly internally scarred by the events that transpired over a decade ago, Manuel is now pathologically obsessed with Catholicism, which he uses to keep his latent homosexual tendencies in check. Although no longer with her hymen intact, Francisca is even more fanatical about Mother Mary and her virginal birth than Manuel, so much so that she has become a nun and helps nurse sick TB patients back to health, while also providing comfort to those unlucky patients on the verge of death. A victim of sin and sodomy, Ramallo receives unwanted visits from ex-boss Don Eugeni Morel – a middle-aged molester and smuggler of contraband – who the young man previously relied on as a fiendish father-figure of sorts. Despite the very different but equally peculiar paths in life, it is quite apparent during The Sea that they are all still spiritually united by the events that transpired during that calamitous day of the Spanish Civil War. Their by chance meeting coupled with themes of engulfing Catholic guilt make The Sea seem like the threesomes' reunion was foreordained by sinister forces, especially when one considers the exceedingly grim yet fitting end of the film that parallels what happened to the children during their childhood years. In a sense, both Ramallo and Manuel Tur would go on to face a fate more deplorable and vexing than that of Julià and Pau because at least their suffering was only short-lived. Charming and charismatic yet ultimately mentally unstable due to the two deaths he witnessed as a child and the sexual abuse he experienced thereafter, Ramallo brutally beats Manuel's cat an inch away from death. Being a man of unflinching faith, Manuel uses the dying animal as the opportunity to reconcile with his childhood friend. Forcing Ramallo to put the nearly dead feline out of its misery, Manuel and his belligerent boyhood friend both bury the cat in a symbolic gesture that temporarily restores their friendship, but the scars and sins sown in childhood henceforth prove to run too deep.  Eventually, Ramallo goes on a rampage of slaying and forced sodomy that proves to be even too powerful for marvelous Manuel's holy miracle of self-induced stigmata. In the end, only Francisca – a modern day Mother Mary figure not unlike Amanda Krueger of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987) – has transcended the wages of fear, fury, and fatality.

Incidentally, director Agustí Villaronga’s father was a child during the Spanish Civil War, so one can speculate that these events had a penetrating, if terribly traumatizing, effect on his son as expressed in films like The Sea and his most critically and financially successful work Pa negre (2010) aka Black Bread; both of which were filmed in the Catalan language and set during the civil war between 1936-1939. Although sleekly stylized and decidedly thrilling and chilling, The Sea is essentially a work of aesthetically keen kitsch of the sleazy yet sophisticated soap opera sort, especially when compared to Villaronga’s greatest aesthetic achievement In a Glass Cage – an audaciously atypical arthouse horror flick that earned him the Manfred Salzberg Award at the Berlin film festival – and the sordid cinematic storytelling of Black Bread; the film that would earn the Spanish auteur thirteen Gaudí Awards and nine Goya Awards, including best film, best director and best adapted screenplay, as well as a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the 84th Academy Awards (making it the first Catalan-language film be nominated for the prestigious award).  Although I doubt it was Villaronga’s intention, The Sea shares a similar 'dream logic' in a manner that would predominate the director's second feature-length work El niño de la luna (1989) aka Moon Child; a wonderful fantasy flick that would prove to be the filmmaker's least sombre and sinister cinematic effort.  Make no mistake about it, The Sea is a pure and unadulterated Agustí Villaronga auteur piece, hence why the film oftentimes feels like a softcore sadomasochistic porn flick of the guilt-ridden and consciously Catholic sort, but an uncompromising and courageous one nonetheless.  That being said, if Pedro Almodóvar (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, The Skin I Live In) is the Spanish queen of camp cinema, Villaronga is surely the Catalan prince of pernicious coming-of-age carnage.  If you're a naive novice to the foreboding films of Agustí Villaronga, The Sea surely makes for an unsettling and unforgettable introduction to the Spanish filmmaker's taboo-taunting themes and oftentimes afflicting yet abnormally attractive aesthetic.

-Ty E

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